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[Editorial] Tardy response

Restricting travel from Hubei isn’t enough to stop Wuhan pneumonia

The government has announced a package of “strong” measures to contain the spread of a new coronavirus, called Wuhan pneumonia, but their effectiveness is questionable.

The measures came too late, and furthermore they are insufficient.

Starting Tuesday, the government will bar foreigners who have been in China’s Hubei province in the past two weeks from entering the country. South Korean nationals who visited the region will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days. A visa-free program for Chinese visitors to Jeju Island will also be suspended temporarily. In addition, there will be fewer flights and sea voyages to and from China.

The government had said it would not bar China sojourners from entering Korea, but as the situation became more serious, it imposed the ban. This is the first time Seoul has denied entry to Chinese people over a viral infection, but the decision seemed inevitable.

According to China’s National Health Commission, the number of confirmed cases and death toll rose to 17,205 and 361, respectively, as of midnight Tuesday. A man died of the virus in the Philippines -- the first confirmed fatality outside China. Korea on Sunday reported three more cases, bringing the total here to 15.

Many countries have taken steps to restrict the entry of people from mainland China.

Washington denied US entry to foreign nationals who have traveled anywhere in China in the past 14 days. The Philippines and Australia have temporarily banned noncitizens who recently traveled to China. New Zealand began to deny entry to visitors departing from or transiting through China for two weeks starting Monday. Vietnam recently barred almost all flights to and from China. Italy suspended all flights to and from China. Some Latin American countries have either barred entry for people coming from China or canceled flights from the nation.

This is not xenophobia nor racial discrimination. These are self-rescue efforts to reduce the inflow of the virus by cutting off contact with high-risk regions.

Considering that many Chinese people visit Korea each day, the Korean government acted too late.

An online petition posted on the website of Cheong Wa Dae a day before the Lunar New Year holidays demanding a temporary entry ban for Chinese visitors had met with approval from more than 650,000 citizens as of Sunday.

President Moon Jae-in told the people not to “worry too much,” but that easygoing attitude caused the government to miss a golden opportunity to curb the spread of the virus early.

About 5 million residents of Wuhan reportedly left for the holidays -- or out of fear of the virus -- before the city was placed under lockdown. More than 6,400 entered Korea through Incheon International Airport over the span of more than three weeks before the holidays started.

All of China’s provinces and territories have now been touched by the outbreak. According to the World Health Organization’s situation report, as of Feb. 1 China had reported 11,821 confirmed cases and only 7,153 of those were in Hubei province. It is doubtful that the spread of the virus can be arrested merely by denying entry to foreigners who have been in Hubei province.

About 20,000 Chinese nationals enter Korea by air or by sea each day. The nation should have taken strong measures early and proactively, but instead it took the lukewarm step of limiting entry to people who had been to Hubei province only after other countries had imposed much stronger restrictions. This is why the Moon administration faces criticism for being passive, out of fear that strong measures might offend Beijing.

Moon said Korea must respond more boldly than necessary to contain the virus, but the measures his administration has announced do not seem sufficient to allay people’s anxiety.

Hospital workers in Hong Kong voted in favor of a strike unless the city closes its border with mainland China. The Moon government needs to weigh why doctors and nurses in Hong Kong felt so strongly about the matter.

If it believes it can contain the virus while leaving some entry channels open, it may have to discuss new measures in the near future.
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